A recent column in this series sought to put the sudden political transformation in Tunisia a wider perspective by analysing the social uprising as part of global trends to which an increasing economic divide was central (see “Tunisia and the world: roots of turmoil”, 24 January 2011).
In the ten days since, further developments across the middle east - the massive demonstrations in Egypt, the replacement of Jordan's cabinet in response to popular discontent, the rising challenge to the Ali Abdullah Saleh regime in Yemen, and even signals of open dissent in Syria - confirm that the contagion of global as well as local tremors is being felt.
At such a moment, there may be value in balancing an immediate view by attempting a more distanced analysis of what is happening in the Arab world and beyond (see Tunisia and Egypt in context [Oxford Research Group, January 2011]).
In the first post-cold-war decade of the 1990s, much of the concern about international security focused on radical movements such as Sendero Luminoso in Peru and the Maoists in Nepal; there was too, amid a certain triumphalism about the onward march of democracy and globalisation, a sense of unpredictability in an international system where marginalisation was increasing.
One assessment of trends and consequences, written before 9/11 and the full emergence of al-Qaida, concluded:
“What may be expected is that new social movements will develop that are essentially anti-elite in nature and will draw their support from people, especially men, on the margins. In different contexts and circumstances they may have their roots in political ideologies, religious beliefs, ethnic, nationalist or cultural identities, or a complex mix of several of these.
They may be focused on individuals or groups but the most common feature is an opposition to existing centres of power. They may be sub-state groups directed at the elites in their own state or foreign interests, or they may hold power in states in the South, and will no doubt be labelled as rogue states as they direct their responses towards the North.
What can be said is that, on present trends, anti-elite action will be a core feature of the next thirty years - not so much a clash of civilisations, more an age of insurgencies” (see Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century, 1st edition, Pluto Press, 2000).
How does this portrait stand up to scrutiny today, just over a decade later?
On the margin
The overriding security concern of the United States and its allies in the 2000s was with al-Qaida and its affiliates. The intense pursuit of this unusual transnational entity in the “war on terror” has amplified its violent and eschatological character, but has not wholly eclipsed the link between its ideological opposition to the “near enemy” - the autocratic and, from its position, heretical regimes of the Arab middle east - and the wider notion of a revolt from the margins (see "A world on the edge", 30 January 2009).
Moreover, the very dominance of the campaign waged by and against al-Qaida over the decade has tended to obscure the proliferation of many other localised insurgencies across the globe. They include neo-Maoist movements in India and the Philippines; the persistent social unrest in China, which in peripheral regions takes on a nationalist-ethnic character, is another example (see "China and India: heartlands of global protest", 7 August 2008).
In the latter case, the Beijing regime faces entrenched opposition from the Uyghurs in the far-west Xinjiang region (see Temtsel Hao, "Xinjiang, Tibet, beyond: China's ethnic relations", 23 July 2009). Its response combines repression with a belief that rapid economic growth will have a solvent effect; in reality, since growth tends to benefits the Han Chinese it often fuels rather than calms tension (see “Leap Frog Years”, Jane's Intelligence Review, February 2011).
The neglected insurgency in the Philippines offers a further case of a revolt of the marginalised. The opening of talks between the Manila government and the New People's Army is for the NPA but one part of a strategy that has allowed it to sustain itself for more than forty years. A current analysis tracks the sources of its ability to withstand numerous government operations:
“This resilience can be partly attributed to the broad appeal of the insurrection, which is both an ideological revolt aimed at overthrowing the government and establishing a 'people's democracy' modelled on Mao Zedong's China, and a peasant/workers’ rebellion motivated by a struggle for fairer access to the country's wealth, the popularity of which owes much to Manila's failure to curtail poverty, inequality and corruption” (see Fabio Scarpello, “Enduring Insurgency”, Jane's Intelligence Review, February 2011).
Across north Africa and the middle east, popular manifestations of revolt have arisen - in Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan and Yemen - that share affinities with this outlook. More are likely to emerge (see "A world in revolt", 12 February 2009). Their origins, evolution and local circumstances differ, and they are deeply embroiled in opposition to particular repressive regimes. At the same time, an underlying theme of economic marginalisation connects them; and this reality is made even more tangible - and intolerable - by improvements in education and communication that make millions of people newly aware of their predicament.
At the heart
The outcome of these revolts is uncertain, and may in any case be diverse. There must be a clear possibility that, both in “greater west Asia” and south and southeast Asia (to name only these regions), a familiar cycle occurs: where popular rebellions bring new rulers (and political parties) to power on a wave of popularity, but which in face of deep socio-economic divisions begin to replicate the old ways.
Here is the challenge for new governance in - perhaps - Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, and Yemen: that it genuinely responds to popular frustration, is serious about providing the ingredients of decent livelihood, promotes equity, and encourages freedom of expression.
But even to raise this scenario raises a further point: that across the global south (and elsewhere) local power-centres are not in overall economic control of their affairs, and very little chance of becoming so. Even if they seek to be progressive and emancipatory, weaker states and governments too are but cogs in a world economic system (and specifically a trading system) in which their voice and influence is marginal-to-non-existent.
The conclusion is plain. If the world really is heading for an age of insurgencies rather than a clash of civilisations, the reasons lie far more in the City of London, in Frankfurt and in Manhattan than in the slums of Cairo. So too do the practical solutions that would avert this prospect, or address it if it comes.
The core ingredient of these solutions is a transformation of the global economy and its governance, of a more radical kind than is usually conceived of. The beginning of wisdom in this respect is to see that Cairo and Davos are intimately connected; that this goes almost entirely unnoticed; and that this lack of recognition is at the heart of the problem.